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A costume drama, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite cuts a deliciously cruel and filthy figure. The characters here do not play coy with their ambitions or their pleasures. “No, I don’t think I will send her away,” one woman says to another. “I like her tongue in my cunt.”
We are at the turn of the eighteenth century, in the time of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). England is at war. The noblemen race ducks along the halls of power. Everywhere one encounters foppish manners and ridiculous wigs and bizarre dances that appear to have been improvised according to the direction: “Be weird! No! Weirder!” It is a time of madness. Much like most times, I suppose.
The film centers on three women. There is the aforementioned Queen, a half-mad, somewhat ineffectual human being. There is the queen’s closet advisor, and secret lover, the the cunning and ambitious Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). And there is the pretty and capable young thing, Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who shows up looking for work one day, a glint in her eye and a face full of shit.
“Have you come to play with our children?” Lady Sarah asks. “Have you come to be their little monster?”
Abigail does not need to think very long about this. She scrunches up her face. “I can be a monster,” she says. And then she raises her claws and growls. Grr.
In his earlier film, The Lobster, Lanthimos created a world in which single people were forced to find a partner lest they be transformed into a beast. The film starred Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and it was a dark and funny take on the desperate nature of us humans. Particularly the desperation of our need to belong to someone, or something, else.
There’s something of a similar theme in The Favourite. We watch as Abigail endeavors to ingratiate herself up the rungs of power, using her naked wiles and bare shoulders to woo men and women to her cause. Lady Sarah admires this. And she is wary of it. There is a scene in which she takes Abigail out to shoot pigeons. Abigail takes aim and misses. “There is always a price to pay,” Lady Sarah says. “And I’m willing to pay it.” She then shoots down a pigeon. “Are you?”
It is Abigail’s turn next. The pigeon flies. Abigail raises her rifle without hesitation. She fires quick and sure. Blood spatters Lady Sarah’s face. Abigail is a fast learner. She does not miss twice.
Lanthimos shoots here sometimes with a fish eye lens. This has the effect of showing you more of the world, but it comes at the cost of warping everything out of all reality. Other times, he comes in close to study the set of Lady Sarah’s jaws or the shadows at play in Abigail’s eyes. In those moments, we see these individuals, and their souls, with startling clarity. But the world, oh the world. It is all lost.
Lady Sarah reveals, about halfway through the the film, the flaw she sees in Abigail’s character. She is the type of girl, Lady Sarah believes, who craves two things above all else, “safety and favor.” And, to be sure, as the stories barrels on towards its tragic and victorious conclusion, we realize the truth of that earlier scene in which Emma Stone’s Abigail transformed, at a whim, into a monster. She will do, we come to understand, anything in order to win, if for no other reason than the imagined safety she believes waits for her at the foot of power. As such, she indulges the Queen’s madness and, in the end, is overshadowed by an insanity of rabbits. Lady Sarah, as ambitious as she may be, will not pay that price. She will sacrifice everything but herself.